GENEVA - More than 1,000
activists and experts attending this week's Fourth World Congress
Against the Death Penalty in this Swiss city are building a network of
cooperation to support local organisations campaigning for human rights
in countries that retain capital punishment.
the world's countries still apply the death sentence, and 2,390 persons
were executed in 2008, according to Amnesty International (AI).
Nevertheless, there was marked global progress towards
abolition of the death penalty in 2008, said the London-based rights
In fact a real change in the history of the death penalty has
occurred over the last 30 years, said Mario Marazziti, spokesman for
the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Rome-based organisation that promotes
international relations founded on human rights and North-South
Back in the 1970s, only 23 countries had abolished the death
penalty, by removing it from the statute books or ceasing to practice
it, whereas today United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reports
that 141 nations have taken this step, or 139 countries according to
AI, said Marazziti.
The discrepancy arises because "specialist organisations may
have access to confidential information that one or two executions have
been carried out in a couple of countries, without any publicity," so
there is doubt about the status of one or two countries, the Italian
So "we have around 140 countries without the death penalty,
out of 192 in the world," said Marazziti, who added that the figures
"indicate a real acceleration in at least the past 20 years."
As well as strengthening an international support network for
those campaigning against court-ordered executions, the World Congress,
which ends Friday, is planning a common strategy for the U.N. General
Assembly session in December that is due to discuss a resolution for a
moratorium on the death penalty.
An appropriate strategy must include simultaneous action in
every region of the world, Marazziti told IPS. The Community of
Sant'Egidio is calling on South Africa, Russia and Brazil to commit
themselves to this effort, and help bring in other players like Mexico
and Chile, he said.
That way, it cannot be argued that this is a European
initiative, or the product of a single school of thought. It will be a
demand made by the whole world, the expert said.
Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain, which currently
holds the EU rotating presidency, confirmed that he will push for
approval of the death penalty moratorium resolution at the U.N. General
Opening the World Congress on Wednesday, Zapatero said his
government wishes to establish an International Commission Against the
Death Penalty. Such a body would be a great help in securing universal
application of an effective moratorium by 2015, as a step towards total
abolition, he said.
The year 2015 was not chosen at random: it coincides with the
deadline approved in 2000 by U.N. member countries for achieving the
Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which set targets for slashing
hunger, poverty and disease and improving education, health, equality
and preservation of the environment.
"As well as slavery and torture, the death penalty must be
consigned to history. It's a barbaric and old-fashioned way of
interpreting justice," said Marazziti.
"I think the MDGs mean that life must be respected under any
circumstances, even when there is suspicion of a crime," he said. "I
want that to be respected, because not all the MDGs are respected."
The countries where the most executions took place in 2008 included
China (1,718), Iran (346), Saudi Arabia (102), the United States (37),
Pakistan (36), Iraq (34), Vietnam (19), Afghanistan (17), and North
Korea and Japan (15 each).
Changes are happening in the United States, Marazziti said.
Even in the state of Texas, where there is a high level of support for
the death penalty, "only eight new death sentences were handed down in
2009 whereas the previous annual average was 48. And (the states of)
New Jersey and New Mexico have abolished the death penalty within the
last two years," he added.
In China, two things have happened. "The Supreme Court removed the
power to pass death sentences from the local courts two years ago, and
observers said that this should bring about a reduction of up to 30
percent in new death sentences," he said.
And a few days ago, "the Supreme Court published official guidelines
instructing tribunals not to give the death penalty except for very
heinous crimes or crimes against the state. So, this is another good
sign," Marazziti said.
Last month, Mongolia abolished the death penalty. Uzbekistan
had already done so, and Kazakhstan has eliminated it for ordinary
Marazziti highlighted the cases of Cambodia, Rwanda and
Burundi, "three countries that have really suffered the last three big
genocides in contemporary history, yet feel that only without the death
penalty can a reconciliation process be started in their societies.
Otherwise revenge, and the thirst for revenge, will never end."
These countries' abolition of capital punishment is "a very symbolic
and meaningful step that can be an answer to those countries that say:
'We have a high level of violence, we need the death penalty'," he
"I think that we are experiencing a positive trend to eradicate the death penalty in the world," said the Italian expert.
Originally many African societies did not have the death
penalty. It arrived hand in hand with colonialism, because African
nations copied European constitutions and many other customs, he
But on this issue, Africa is now changing faster than the other continents, he concluded.